Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Networking Basics

In response to numerous specific requests for information and the burgeoning interest in the topic, Monitor Magazine has responded with a new monthly feature: Computer Networking. This column will investigate networking fundamentals, benefits and  new technology as it emerges.

In this first article I want to focus on fundamentals: new terms, definitions and basic networking concepts. I would like to explore the topic from the perspective of an uninitiated individual in the process of weighing the merits of one networked system versus the numerous alternatives.

Where To Start?

When I first dove into the networked system pool, I soon discovered that the water got deep very quickly. Faced with a daunting new array of acronyms, jargon and concepts, I found I was nearly overwhelmed and yet this fascinating new area of computing was not nearly so intimidating once I got a handle on the basics. My impetus into this new realm was the fact that I had several computer systems in my home based business and was curious about how I might connect them in order that information residing on one might be accessed by the others.

I went  to my local computer dealer with the idea and picked his brain as to which course of action would be best. He told me that I had several options. The first decision that I had to make was whether I wanted to run a Peer-to-Peer or Client-Server network. In Peer-to-Peer, the systems run independently of eachother without the need for a central server; hence every machine is a workstation and none are tied up in a server role. Resources such as programs, documents, spreadsheets, databases, printers, modems, CD-ROM drives etc. may be shared as defined by the individual workstation who owns them. E-mail and other messaging services may also be utilized. Examples of this type of NOS (network operating system) would be Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Windows '95 and Lantastic. Win '95 and 3.11 may also be used in a client-server environment as clients.

Client-Server is a distributed computing model in which clients request data and processing from servers. This type of network is based around a central server or group of servers which coordinates traffic on the network. Traffic consists of  packets which are blocks of information equaling a specific number of bytes that pass between server and the client. Because the real computing power lies in the server, clients can be significantly less expensive computers or even dumb terminals (stations with no inherent computing ability); depending on the type of network traffic. Clients can be a variety of things including workstations, but are defined as a computer system or process that requests a service of another computer system or process. Examples of this type of this type of NOS are Windows NT Server, Novell 4.1, Banyan Vines, DEC Pathworks and Lantastic Server.

As I didn't want to tie up a computer to act as a server and only wanted to connect four machines, I decided to go peer-to-peer. Expense was also a big factor in this decision as the software required was significantly less costly. Had I been looking at implementing a network on a larger scale however, I discovered that I would definitely have gone client-server due to the more robust support and services offered by these NOS's.

My next decision was the type of cabling I wanted to buy. This seems like a trivial matter; however, the cable chosen determines the type of  NIC's (Network Interface Cards) you must use, whether or not you require a hub (a device that handles the flow of data) , the amount of bandwidth (the amount of data that can be sent through a given communications circuit) available as well as the future upgrade path.

The two main choices available to me were twisted pair (literally wires twisted together) which forms the backboneof a 10BaseT (twisted pair variant of Ethernet ( a network standard which allows 10 megabits per second bandwidth)) network and Coaxial cable which is like a thinner version of the cable that runs into the back of your TV and forms the backbone of the Thinnet variant of Ethernet. If I decided to utilize a 10BaseT solution, I would be forced to use a hub (added expense) but assuming I used Category 5  ( a standard of wiring which allows up to100 megabits/sec. bandwidth) wiring, I would be able to upgrade to 100BaseT (same as 10BaseT but with 100 megabit/sec. bandwidth) in the future with no associated wiring costs. Should I decide to go with Thinnet, I wouldn't require a hub but would be limited to standard Ethernet speeds. Having only the four stations and no great need for speed, I chose the latter.

Continued Next Month

Originally Published in Monitor Magazine lanStuff column, June, 1996. Columnist, Ray Richards

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